Labour Blog

Middle East turmoil demands political initiative from Europe

Posted on February 18, 2009 at 04:14 PM

The attack on Gaza has underscored the need for Europe to help forge peace in the region, writes Proinsias De Rossa in the Irish Times today

You can read his opinion piece below.

"Have you ever wondered what hell looked like? Well . . . look around you bitch. Ha Ha Ha."

Those chilling words, written in a neat hand, were left by an Israeli soldier on the walls of a house in the countryside I visited during my trip to Gaza last week.

Speaking through interpreters, neighbours told us how the tanks came, and how they ran from their house to a house further up the laneway. The Israeli Defence Forces called on them to come out with their hands up. Using bits of cotton as white flags, they walked back down. The Israelis started firing on them.

Two women were hit and fell: a grandmother and her 35-year-old daughter. They bled to death where they fell. Ambulances were refused access. The two women lived in the house used by Israeli soldiers for graffiti practice. This was cold-blooded murder; a war crime. It cannot be explained away by claiming these women were shielding Hamas militants.

Elsewhere in a suburb of Gaza City, we visited the pile of rubble that used to be the American International School, a privately owned school that taught American business methods to 200 Palestinian students. We met the school's director, who wondered in bewilderment why Israel would want to demolish his school. The irony is that Israel - the most Americanised part of the Middle East - destroyed a school that Hamas had tried to shut down on three previous occasions.

I also met Palestinian politicians including prime minister Salam Fayyad, the former World Bank official. During my previous trips, such meetings had been polite, but this time they were frank. When I wondered how Hamas could not realise the counter-productive effect of their rockets launched into Israel, they asked whether we - Europeans - realise they have been under occupation for 40 years.

One of their questions was particularly telling: will Europe ostracise Israel if Avigdor Lieberman (the far-right politician who won 15 seats in the Knesset) joins the government, in the same way that we ostracised the Palestinian unity government because it included Hamas?

All politicians we met in the West Bank and Gaza - whether representing Fatah, Hamas or the PLO - stated their support for a Palestinian government of "national accord". They are pessimistic about unity. They are putting their hopes in the Egyptian-sponsored meetings later this month aimed at forging such an agreement.

There was heavy criticism by the smaller parties we met of human rights abuses, including physical abuse by Palestinian security personnel in both parts of the territories. All were dismissive of Tony Blair's role as the envoy for the quartet of interests (the United Nations, European Union, United States and Russia). Since being appointed in mid-2000, he has yet to visit Gaza.
Every Palestinian we met wanted to know why Europe does not hold Israel accountable for violating human rights, and why we do not demand that Israel make reparations to European taxpayers for the destruction of EU-funded infrastructure.

Czech and Swedish consuls, as well as European Commission representatives, also briefed us. They too were frank and to the point in their pessimistic assessment of developments in the region.

There would now appear to be a growing European consensus that non-engagement with Hamas when they were elected was a mistake. I pointed out that it is not sufficient to lay down generalised conditions regarding what Palestinians had to do. Palestinians need to know precisely what is required of them and they had to see the same conditions applied to Israel; while we need to understand the limits of what each can deliver.

Why, for example, does Europe persist with political engineering in the Middle East by offering to upgrade relations with Israel in order to boost Kadima leader Tzipi Livni? We know the result - Kadima, with the support of the Israeli Labor Party, launched a war of terror, as well as an economic war, against the people of Gaza.

Representatives of Gaza businesses illustrated the effects of that economic war to us. They told us about an industrial estate close to the northern border with Israel which employed 3,000 people, demolished some years ago by Israel. During the recent invasion, the Israelis destroyed an ice cream factory and biscuit factory and 200 other industrial units. This was planned destruction of the economic infrastructure by tanks and bulldozers.

In one case soldiers demolished a cement silo by strapping dynamite to its retaining pillars. The businessmen told us that Gaza has been a hub of international trade for 4,000 years and it has 3,000 idle engineers and 220 contractors with the skills to rebuild Gaza. In recent years business could survive only by bringing goods in through tunnels - at horrendous cost. A sack of cement brought in via a tunnel costs €70, while in Ireland it costs about €4.

Everyone we met had one basic demand: an end to the siege of Gaza which is crushing the population, 90 per cent of whom are now dependent on food aid. They want the crossings from Israel into Gaza opened, and they need the daily average of 120 truckloads of goods to be increased to at least 500. They want more than food to be let through. Israel is refusing to allow the UN to bring in paper for Gaza's 200 schools, saying it is "dual use".

Most of all, those we met want peace and the freedom to run their own affairs. Freedom to grow their fruit and flowers and harvest their olives, write their poems and sing their songs; freedom to follow their own gods in the small corner of land that the international community has so "kind-heartedly" left them with.

With all our experience of war and peace, can Europe find a way to help the Palestinians, while also helping Israelis overcome their fear of annihilation? I believe we can. But progress requires Europe and the United States to be hard-headed and even-handed, and to apply common democratic norms to all concerned.

Europe, in particular, needs to back up its rhetoric about two viable independent states. We must engage with elected Hamas representatives and spell out the criteria by which we will judge Hamas's actions. We must insist on verifiable evidence that Hamas is doing all in its power to prevent rocket attacks on Israel. Hamas must release the solder it holds, Cpl Shallit.
Fatah and Hamas must end the intimidation of their internal opponents. The factions must be assisted in creating a common governing structure for the West Bank and Gaza, which is pluralist and democratic.

Europe needs to press Israel to end the siege of Gaza, and to freeze the settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Israel must end the house demolitions and evictions, and scale back the almost 700 roadblocks in the occupied West Bank.
Europe must make it absolutely clear to Israel that relations will not be upgraded until these conditions have been met and until Israel has demonstrated a willingness to enter substantive negotiations on final status issues.

We must also initiate procedures to hold Israel to account for the damage to EU-funded infrastructure in Gaza, and assess the extent to which Israel is in breach of its human rights obligations under its trade agreement with the EU, as well as applying sanctions in response to those breaches.

During my trip I met a man who lost his wife and four of his children. Forty-seven members of his extended family were killed during the invasion. His 10-year-old daughter was trapped along with her siblings and her dead mother for 12 days. As we talked, she clung to him while he hugged her close. She is the reason why Europe can no longer stand by on the political sidelines.

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